7:30 AM ET
Zach LoweESPN Senior Writer
After much springtime bloviating, there will be no asterisk on this NBA championship. If anything, it will be more badge of honor — a mark of perseverance through isolation, mental strain, and the internal discord of performing a job in the entertainment industry while issues of social and racial justice roiled outside the Orlando bubble.
We remember some champions more than others. This champion will stand out forever.
The bubble did not produce a fluke finalist. The Los Angeles Lakers ranked among the league’s three favorites all season. The Miami Heat did not, but they have been a different team in Orlando — new starting lineup, remade identity, more powerful two-way force. They faced a slightly tougher slate of playoff opponents than the Lakers, and outscored them by 4.5 points per 100 possessions — two points fatter than their regular-season margin.
Perhaps the bubble took a larger toll on the LA Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. We will learn more as players, coaches, and staff decompress and reflect. Three key Clippers left and returned. But every team dealt with more or less the same on-the-ground realities in Orlando. Two of Miami’s regular-season starters — Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn — contracted COVID-19 during the hiatus.
The Heat are 12-3 in the playoffs, same as the Lakers. They are running roughshod over weakening teams in fourth quarters. They represent the best defense the Lakers have faced in the postseason. The Lakers and LeBron James owe no apologies for arriving on the precipice without facing the Bucks or Clippers, no matter how many implacable critics stand ready to proclaim LeBron’s potential fourth championship tarnished.
The terms of the LeBron-Michael Jordan debate shift if the Lakers win. That would also give Los Angeles 17 titles — tying the Boston Celtics for most ever. Haggle over whether five Minneapolis-era titles should “count” if you want, but record books would list the Lakers with 17. (And if we discount those five, how do we account for nine of Boston’s 17 coming from 1957 to 1966 — when the NBA featured fewer than 10 teams?)
The Heat, meanwhile, meet LeBron at the summit six years after he spurned them — a decision that enraged Pat Riley and left Miami to pick up the pieces after planning for LeBron’s return.
The rage faded fast. There is mutual respect now, and the joy of shared past triumphs. But tension remains — perhaps something akin to the extra competitive juice you feel facing a distant sibling who has outdone you over the past half-decade.
Riley and the Heat want championships, regardless of the opposition. They won’t say it out loud, but they would surely take special satisfaction toppling James.
The bigger-picture stakes are fun, and meaningful, but they won’t decide the series. Let’s look at the X’s and O’s that will.
Who does Bam Adebayo guard?
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When the Lakers shift Anthony Davis to center, the answer is easy: Adebayo guards Davis, and the Heat can switch most LeBron-Davis pick-and-rolls — even if doing so leaves Jimmy Butler or Jae Crowder jostling with Davis.
But despite all the clamor — including from here — for the Lakers to “go small,” there is really no statistical evidence the Lakers need to against anyone but the micro-ball Houston Rockets. The Lakers are plus-55 in 194 combined postseason minutes with the LeBron/Davis/Dwight Howard and LeBron/Davis/JaVale McGee groupings, per NBA.com. They are plus-21 in 123 minutes when LeBron and Davis play without any of Howard, McGee, or Markieff Morris. The LeBron/Morris/Davis trio — a tweener look — is a monstrous plus-38 in 68 minutes.
The Lakers will start big, and play a good chunk of the series that way. They are huge with LeBron, Davis, and a 7-foot center on the floor. It is one thing to watch it on TV, quite another to encounter all those limbs in person. Frank Vogel and the players have weaponized that size in smart ways. They can switch pick-and-rolls and double-team opposing stars — tactics they will sometimes use against Butler and Goran Dragic — knowing two fast and very large humans still lurk around the paint, ready to barricade the rim and leap at shooters.
Howard has earned the starting spot, with one caveat: He fouls a lot, and the Heat ranked No. 1 in free throw rate. Spot the Heat five extra free points per game, and you embolden an underdog.
I get the appeal in slotting Adebayo onto Davis: Put your star defender on L.A.’s star big man. Don’t overthink it. You can switch the LeBron-Davis pick-and-roll without fatal mismatches.
If the Lakers redirect their offense away from Adebayo, that means going away from Davis too — a win for Miami. We will see a lot of Adebayo on Davis — in crunch time, and when the Lakers go small.
But I can see Erik Spoelstra starting the other way: Adebayo on Howard (or McGee), Crowder on Davis. The Lakers in their bigger alignments use the LeBron-Howard/McGee pick-and-roll more than the LeBron-Davis version; Davis often spaces the floor. Having Adebayo on Howard might put him in more of L.A.’s two-man action.
It would also keep Adebayo closer to the rim, where Miami really needs him. The Heat do a good job keeping opponents out of the restricted area, but enemies who encroach shoot well: 66% in the regular season and 64% in the playoffs, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Lakers are the league’s fiercest rim-attacking team. Almost 40% of their attempts came at the rim in the regular season, second most, and they converted a league-best 69% there.
Almost half LeBron’s postseason shots have come at the basket. He has rammed in 76% of them. He is shooting 64% on 2s overall, the best postseason mark of his storied career. The Heat should want Adebayo either near the basket, or guarding LeBron on switches late in possessions. Starting him on Howard might be the best way to accomplish that.
It also decreases the chances of Adebayo suffering early foul trouble, something the Heat cannot afford. They are a team-high plus-89 with Adebayo on the floor in the playoffs, and minus-14 when he sits.
Leaving Crowder on Howard would risk a bundle of L.A. offensive rebounds and the accompanying hacks.
The downside is obvious: Davis roasting Crowder. But Crowder is a sturdy post defender. He has a low base and battles hard. He’s sly about fronting. He has given taller, skinnier scorers more trouble than they expected.
None are as accomplished as Davis, perhaps the best overall player of this postseason. If Davis gets rolling against Crowder — and even before he does — the Heat can send help, including from their biggest and most explosive defender in Adebayo. The Heat are fast, and connected on defense. They fly around, and rarely make mistakes.
Swarming Davis and James in the paint invites more L.A. 3s. Miami will accept that tradeoff. Only the Bucks and Toronto Raptors allowed more 3-point attempts than Miami during the regular season. That has changed some in the playoffs — probably due to Miami going smaller — but the Heat still defend from the rim out. Elite shooting teams can wobble that structure. The Lakers are not such a team. They attempt relatively few 3s and have hit them at about a league-average rate.
How do the Lakers deal with Miami’s zone?
Boston solved Miami’s zone by the end of the conference finals. The Heat have allowed 1.1 points per possession when playing zone — around the league’s overall postseason scoring average, per Second Spectrum. The zone has worked for stretches, but it has been demystified.
The Lakers studied Boston’s counters, and have answers Boston did not. James and Davis can hurt the zone from the middle as passers and scorers. Give them a quarter-step advantage there, and they are on the rim. Davis, McGee, and Howard are lob threats in dead zones along the baseline. Zones are vulnerable to offensive rebounding; the Lakers have gobbled offensive boards all season.
The Lakers have the second-worst turnover rate in the playoffs, and Miami’s zone has wrenched away lots of steals. The Lakers need to be careful.
After posting a (slightly) below-average mark in the regular season, the Lakers in the playoffs have scored more than one point per possession in their half-court offense — second among postseason teams, and tops among those who advanced beyond the first round, per Cleaning The Glass. They have gotten enough 3-point shooting, including some from unlikely sources; Rajon Rondo and Morris are 30-of-68 combined from deep in the playoffs.
The Heat are disciplined in transition defense — a must against the Lakers’ fast-breaking, touchdown-passing machine. They are going to make L.A. grind this out. A few cold-shooting games from the Lakers, and the Heat could be in business.
How do the Lakers defend Bam?
LeBron figures to guard Butler a lot. The Lakers can probably switch the Butler-Adebayo two-man game, even when their centers start off defending Adebayo. (The Lakers have prided themselves on not switching, but top postseason offenses demand flexibility.) LeBron can hold up against Adebayo; L.A.’s centers can back off Butler and dare him to shoot long 2s or drive into them. They just have to stay down on Butler’s pump fake — easier said than done.
LeBron will dart under some screens for Butler and flash back into Butler’s shooting window.
The Lakers can also defend traditionally: Have Howard drop back to corral Butler, and bank on the three defenders behind the play — including Davis — rotating and smothering Miami’s shooters.
The Lakers have to be on high alert for Butler to reject screens, and slice the other direction. Few ball handlers do that more, per Second Spectrum.
Green will guard Butler some, though that forces LeBron to chase Dragic or Duncan Robinson when the starting lineups face off. (LeBron defended Robinson a bit in the regular season, and he can bulldoze Robinson after stops if Miami doesn’t extricate itself out of that matchup.)
When Davis plays center, he will guard Adebayo — allowing the Lakers to switch more if they like. Davis could in theory start games on Adebayo, leaving Howard to chase Crowder, but I’m not sure that contortion is worth it.
It was the Dragic-Adebayo pick-and-roll that tore apart Boston. That is tougher to switch; Adebayo can hurt the Lakers’ guards with post-ups and offensive boards. (Among Adebayo’s glowing playoff stats, don’t sleep on him draining 82% from the line after shooting 69% in the regular season. That is a big deal considering how often he finds himself in scrums.)
If the Lakers do switch a guard onto Adebayo, they could have LeBron or Davis rescue that guy with a second switch on the fly. LeBron is really good at that. Having so many players moving around opens windows — dangerous against a team with shooting — but the Lakers are big, fast, and adept at slamming those windows shut.
The Lakers could stick LeBron on Dragic late in close games to switch more smoothly, but that means someone else has to guard Butler. Green can hang. Maybe Kuzma can. Butler has bullied Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers have tried Caruso on Butler; Caruso backs down from no one.
The Lakers could keep it simple against the Dragic-Adebayo action: Hang back, help from the outside if required, and coax Dragic into contested floaters. The Heat station Robinson on the weak side to discourage normal help rotations; teams are paranoid about giving Robinson any airspace. Miami synchronizes some Robinson off-ball action on one side with a pick-and-roll on the other to further distract help defenders.
But the Lakers are a high-IQ team. If they have to help from unconventional places, they’ll figure that out. LeBron and Davis are big and fast enough to lunge off Robinson and recover:
Davis has the quicks and anticipation to stick with Adebayo’s hard slips to the rim.
The Lakers are better equipped than Boston to switch the Dragic-Butler pick-and-roll; they will live with Caldwell-Pope switching onto Butler in that circumstance. They can trap late in the shot clock, as they did against James Harden, using time as an extra defender.
That other part of Miami’s offense
You still have to contend with Robinson and Tyler Herro slingshotting off Adebayo picks — and into catch-and-shoot 3s. Most centers are wary leaping out to contest 30 feet from the rim. When they do, Robinson and Herro slip passes to Adebayo — who then orchestrates a vicious 4-on-3.
The Lakers’ centers have been smart about lurching and swiping at Robinson to buy their teammates’ time — and then moonwalking back to Adebayo.
If Davis is playing center, he can switch in a pinch. Robinson and Herro will get theirs, anyway. It is exhausting guarding them.
LeBron will go guard hunting
Dragic, Robinson, and Herro need to steel themselves for LeBron dragging them into one pick-and-roll after another. Switch, and it’s a crisis; LeBron is feasting at the basket unless Miami sends a double-team.
Miami will mix coverages to try to keep LeBron off-balance. The Heat might trap high on the floor and force the Lakers to pass their way into a good shot. They might switch and then trap LeBron late in the shot clock — if he allows any time for that. They’ll play zone to protect their weakest defenders. They might even scoot under screens and see if LeBron takes the bait. (LeBron is shooting 24% on long 2s in the playoffs, but the Heat are in trouble if his run of jumpers to eliminate Denver signaled a resurgence.)
The Lakers can spring off-ball actions designed to generate mismatches for James and Davis:
Does Miami tweak its rotation?
The Heat can’t get much smaller than the Butler-Crowder-Adebayo trio against the biggest L.A. lineups. Could we see the return of the double-big look? The Adebayo-Kelly Olynyk duo treaded water during the regular season, but Olynyk doesn’t really play like a big in ways that matter in this matchup — rebounding and interior defense.
Meyers Leonard relishes full-contact boxouts. Does Spoelstra dust off the Leonard-Adebayo combo that started pre-bubble?
Miami has also tried Derrick Jones Jr. against LeBron, Davis, and even the Lakers’ centers. I bet he gets a shot in this series. The Heat could even use him as backup center when Adebayo rests. That role went mostly to Olynyk before Spoelstra dispensed with non-Bam bigs against Boston, and it will be interesting to see if Olynyk carves out a role here. LeBron will attack Olynyk every chance he gets; if Miami uses Olynyk, it might have to be when LeBron rests. (Interestingly, Adebayo and LeBron typically rest around the same times.) The Jones-Olynyk frontcourt was effective in the first round against the Indiana Pacers.
Andre Iguodala has a ton of experience guarding LeBron. The Heat closed Games 4 and 6 against Boston with the Butler-Iguodala-Adebayo frontcourt. That is fine against Davis-at-center lineups; can it hold up against bigger ones? Is Solomon Hill really an answer?
Any increase in minutes for Jones or Iguodala alongside Butler/Adebayo means playing three non-threats from deep — something Spoelstra has mostly avoided.
But those lineups have worked in small doses in the playoffs. Miami is plus-90 in 62 postseason minutes with Iguodala, Butler, and Adebayo on the floor. That trio went minus-42 in 45 regular-season minutes.
A Heat championship should not blow fans away. How can anyone doubt them now? But the Lakers have the two best players, and both of their core lineup types — big and “small” — have some pressure points against Miami. Depending on your conception of the 2014 Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron’s teams have not lost a series in which they have been favorites since the 2011 Finals. Lakers in 6.